Which Camera Is Best For Recording Conference Videos?

I have a nice side-gig where I record video of tech conference talks in high quality. I love doing it because I get to share the knowledge at these events with the world and I get paid to watch these cool people present. A major part of my kit to record these things is the camera.

The last camera I owned was a Nikon D800 and whilst the image quality is excellent, I sold the D800 and lenses I had a few months ago when I went overseas and replaced it with a Sony a6000. The a6000 is a sweet little travel camera because it has an APS-C sensor in a pocket camera body and has an amazingly fast AF system, the best AF I’ve ever used actually.

As nice as the a6000 is, it’s not suitable for video recording events (I’ll get into why later). I’ll be recording a few more conference videos in 2015 than I have in the past, it’s time to look at my options for buying a camera. I recorded RubyConf 2015 back in Feb and for that I rented a Panasonic AC160 from Melbourne Camera Rental (really nice guy that runs it – loves talking about the gear when I return it). It’s cheap enough ($240 for 2 days) and got the job done. I was very lucky that it was in a super well lit room. The venue is literally a glass box that let in oodles of natural light. The AC160 did a fine job. But I can tell that in the typical dark venues conferences are in, it may not be as useful.

  • big arse sensor and good quality at high gain/high ISO
  • fast face detection AF
  • good telephoto lens at least 300mm at 35mm equivalent
  • no maximum clip recording times, I can live with every 30 min, but ideally it will record until the card is full
  • doesn’t use proprietary cards like P2 or SxS
  • easy on the wallet, not too expensive
  • bonus points if it takes good stills and I can have an all in one camera

A note about face detection AF: I really love the idea of face detect AF for video. All my video recording is of people’s faces. That’s all I record and their face is all I need in focus. Not their laptop, not the background, but their face. The ability to simply turn on face detect AF and have it continuously keep focus on the presenter’s face is priceless. Makes it pretty much set and forget for me as the camera person and I don’t have to worry about the image being soft.

Unfortunately, this feature doesn’t work as well as it should. On the D800 the camera would hunt to find the face often, even when the presenter hasn’t moved. The video ends up useless as all you’d see is an image in focus, then out of focus and ugh. Same goes for non-face AF use, continuous video AF kinda doesn’t work well, because as soon as the AF is confused the image ends up a horrible out of focus mess until the camera person intervenes. On the other hand, having to constantly adjust focus when a speaker decides to rock back and forth or pace around the stage is annoying. However… on the Sony a6000, the face detection works so damn well (and AF in general) that it hardly ever hunts, or if it does hunt, it’s so quick it’s not that bad. It uses a hybrid AF system with loads of focus points which combine contrast detection (the standard way AF works) and phase detection, which I don’t really understand. If there was a DSLR that had such nice focussing as the a6000, that would be awesome. But I don’t think such a thing exists. In the abscence of face detection AF that works, it’s probably better concentrating on other aspects of the camera and just focussing the old fashioned way.

Enough crapping on, let’s see what’s on the market!

Blackmagic

I love Blackmagic gear so much. I borrowed a Pocket Cinema Camera and it is excellent. They’re Australian designed too! How can you not love that?

Pocket Cinema Camera – I really like the one I have here, even more so that it records to ProRes Proxy now and doesn’t need insane SD cards. Unforatunatley its sensor is just too tiny for the shit conditions I record in. I’ve got one here with me now and might just set it up at the next conference I record, just to see how I go. No harm done using it as a second camera. But from my tests indoors, it leaves a lot to be desired. Outdoors in the sun, man, this thing is sweeeeettt.

Studio Camera – this would be spot on perfect if it had a bigger sensor. It’s got the same one as the Pocket camera. Makes sense though, in a studio you’d have proper lightning.

URSA – sweet baby jesus this is a good cinema camera. It is $7500 and I’d still need to get a lens. So out of the question for me to buy. They have a weird one coming out soon which is the camera, without a sensor. You plug in a HDMI source and away you go. One of these plus a Sony A7s, oooh.

Cinema Camera and Cinema Camera 4K – I don’t need 4K, so I’m not gonna pay extra for that. But the basic Cinema Camera is around $1800-1900 used and takes SSDs, records to ProRes, has a Super35 sensor (little bigger than APS-C) and uses the Canon EF mount so there’s a fuckload of lenses for it. I can buy a used 70-200 f/4 or even try and get a Sigma 70-200 f/2.8 and it’ll be up to 480mm range which is super handy. Could even get a 135mm f/2 lens, it’ll end up being at 324mm and let in even more light and be super sharp! It can record 12-bit RAW images, which for what I record would need way too many SSDs, but does do 10-bit ProRes which is more reasonable. At 10-bits of colour info, there’s more of dynamic range to boost the image exposure/brightness in post without too much quality loss. Can do 12-bits of colour depth if you record in RAW (and have storage to burn). This thing hits pretety much all the targets. I’d like better AF performance though (but read the side note about AF up near the start).

Panasonic

Panny have so many cameras, so so many. But a lot of them suck (small sensors, P2 memory, way too expensive) or are old (tiny old sensors). Why haven’t they got any full frame or APS-C sensor stuff? I’m just going to concentrate on a few.

AF-100/102 – a couple of these are on the market 2nd hand for $1000. They take MFT lenses which is nice, but there’s not a lot of fast lens choice vs. the Canon or Nikon mounts, particularly 2nd hand. You need a fast lens too as the sensor on this thing is small (its MFT).

GH4 – everything about this camera is perfect except that shitty MFT sensor & lens mount. Low light is worse than a cheap APS-C DSLR. So yeah. Boo.

AC130/160 – the AC130 is the same as the AC160 just without SDI. I rented this before and it worked well in daylight, but I doubt it will work well in shitty conferences venues. Plus it’s expensive – $3700. I like the way it handles though, with all the options easy to configure from buttons on the side. Looks “pro” too. The face detect AF on it worked surprisingly well, sometimes. I did end up turning it off because when it fails, it fails bad and won’t stop hunting.

AC90 – the tiny model of the AC130 with a tinier sensor. It’s $2200, but yeah, that 1/4.7″ sensor is microscopic.

HC-X1000GC – looks like the AC130 but 4K, which is weird as it costs less than the AC130 at only $3300. 60fps 4K, very nice. Downsize that to 1080p and it should look sharp and have less noise, making up or the smaller sensors and any low light defeciencies. Of all the Panasonic cameras this is the only one I’d bother getting. I’d really need to see it “in the flesh” and see what its like in low light.

Sony

Sony also have dozens of cameras. I really haven’t used them before and don’t know them as well as the Panasonics or Canons but their sensor tech is the best right now. I’m only going to focus on a couple of models.

Where Sony drops the ball is on all their interchangeable lens cameras. The E-mount isn’t as diverse as the Canon and Nikon ranges. There’s fuck all 2nd hand lenses and buying new is expensive. There’s adaptors but they’re shit and make AF slow (and cost money). There’s no 70-200 f/2.8 for E-mount. There’s an f/4, but it costs $1500. Hiring lenses is almost impossible – the only place in Melbourne is Michaels and it’s not cheap. The whole point of buying a camera is so that I don’t need to hire anything. So with this caveat in mind, lets see Sony’s range.

FS-100 – has a nice big Super35 sensor, has decent AF and records to SD cards. Not a lot of them around 2nd hand (means people like them) but when they do pop up for around $2000-$3000 without a lens. Once you get a good lens (like the 70-200 f/4 – the 18-200 kit lens is f/6.3 at 200mm, ugh) the total price is almost $5,000. Too much for me.

FS-700 – replaced the FS100 and goes for around $6k used, or $7800 new, plus a lens ($1500 for the 70-200 f/4). Almost $10k, and too expensive for me.

FDRAX1 – much like the Panasonic X1000GC. Does 4K, has a built in lens. 1/2.3″ sensor (which is small, but probably not that bad). It is $4900 though, which is getting up there in price and records to weird XQD cards.

HDR-AX2000 – old. Somone in SA is selling it for $1000 and is “open to offers” so maybe $850 delivered. But it is an old camera now and the sensor is a few generations behind.

NEXEA50H – looks ok, is $3800 with the 18-200 f/6.3 lens. Which is alright, but $3800 for an alright camera when the Blackmagic is a cool camera for $2000 and EF mount and ProRes and SSD and bigger sensor…

EX2/EX3/PMW-whatevers – getting a bit on the old side, but still workhorses of the event video space. Downside is that they’re expensive new and hard to find 2nd hand. Oh, and they need SxS cards, so yeah, that’s a $1000 to get 8-9hrs of media at max quality, or buy an Atoms Samurai.

Alpha 7S – this is the best sensor on pretty much any camera, period. Excellent DSLR for stills too. $2400 without a lens. The lack of lenses let this wonderful sensor down. E-mount gear is expensive and hard to find. If this camera was Canon or Nikon mount I’d have one already. The low light ISO is awesome. I wish Sigma or Tamron would make their 70-200 f/2.8 for full frame E-mount. It does have the usual DSLR issues though – 30 min max clip length & AC power requires an external kit ($30 off eBay tho). Sometimes the external power kit doesn’t work because of the size of the tripod plate – it’s normally a battery with a cable hanging out, so you need to leave the battery door hanging open and depending on the width of the camera, may not be possible. Awkward.

Alpha 6000 – I own this camera and love it for stills. Even records to AVCHD for video. The AF is the best I’ve ever used. The sensor is as good as any entry level DSLR. But shit lenses, again. A 70-200 f/2.8 on this thing with an AC adapator would be perfect, since I already own one.

Canon

Canon make excellent DSLRs and video cameras, but the pricing structure is weird and the camcorders are a bit old now.

5D MkII – seen these 2nd hand for $1000-ish. A legend of video recording. The Magic Lantern hack adds all sorts of things to it too. Full frame sensor for beautiful iamges in low light and it makes an excellent stills camera as well. It has the same issue as other DSLRs – needs an AC power kit (again, not that much off eBay about $20 – but could be an issue if it doesn’t fit on my tripod) and has video clip length limitations. The 5D MkII only does 12 minutes at 1080p. That is not good. Magic Lantern doesn’t even work around this, but it will auto-restart for you (losing 1-2sec of video, which I could live with, but it’s not ideal). I’m not a fan of using a hacked firmware in production either, for stuff I can’t reshoot. Overall though, it’s a good package. I get a still camera I can use and a video camera that’s very capable. Pair it up with a 70-200 f/2.8 or f/4 or the the 70-300 if I can’t get close enough. For under $2500 I’ll have a really nice kit.

100D – supposed to have great AF and is about $800 brand new without a lens. There’s a dude on Gumtree selling it for $350 used right now. APS-C sensor, so not as beefy as the full frame one on the 5D MkII. Does clean HDMI out though, so when partnered with an Atomos Ninja, is a nice setup. The Ninja 2 costs around $800 though.

70D – The 70D is around $800 used and has “Dual Pixel CMOS AF” system kinda like the Sony a6000. When used with an STM lens, it’s pretty sweet. The 55-250mm STM lens, whilst slow, can focus really really fast too. Would still prefer the 135mm f/2 or 70-200 f/2.8 or f/4 on it. APS-C sensor, so not as big as the 5D MkII but still quite nice. The AF is what makes this camera I reckon.

C100 – the C100 is a very nice video camera – I used it to record RubyConf 2014 in Sydney as they are way easier to hire in Sydney than in Melbourne. There was no AF, but everything looked pretty good. Have a nice full frame sensor on the C100 too. Downside is that they’re expensive. At least $4,000 for a used one. The new MkII brings phase detection AF which will be great, but only on STM lenses and they’re not the best lenses (f/3.5 to f/5.6). If I had a bunch of money, the C100 MkII and some Canon glass would be the way to go. But I don’t have $10,000.

XF100/200/300 – the XF305 is the BBC’s standard documentary camera. It is a bit old though, but still looks great. Unfortunatley, it’s also expensive. There’s someone on eBay selling one for $3800, but nobody bid on it. I offered $2100 but he wouldn’t take it. Might offer $2500 and see how I go. Still, I could get a Blackmagic Cinema Camera and a lens for less. It’s still a 1/3″ sensor and it was released 5 years ago. The 100 & 200 just have small sensors and are expensive. I used to own a few XF100s and they were good for their time. I probably should never have sold them and I’d have had an excellent ROI on them.

Nikon

I’ve had Nikon DSLRs for years and like em. They were one of the first to include 1080p video recording on their cameras too. Nice lens selection, but it still has the same DSLR issues of limited video clip length and needing AC power via a battery adaptor. Nikon’s AF isn’t as good as the Dual Pixel CMOS AF on Canon’s stuff either. Nikon does do clean 1080p out on HDMI across the range though.

D800/D600 – The D800 and D600 are pretty similar and are full frame sensors, so nice and big to pick up all that light. The D610 can be hand for around $1000 too. Add on a Sigma 70-200 f/2.8 for $600 and you’ve got a pretty nice kit. I know for a fact that the AF on it sucks for video, so that’s a point taken away. I’d be more inclined to get the Canon 70D to be honest and enjoy the crop factor on the APS-C sensor. The fact the D610 is full frame is all it has going for it, oh and clean 1080p output if I ever wanna

D3300 – $400 brand new from JB Hi-Fi without a lens. Chuck the Sigma 70-200 for $600 as well as for under $1,000 there’s a camera that will do 1080p. The D3300’s APS-C sensor is apparently very much like the Sony a6000 I have and I’m pretty happy with that. It’s an SLR and it needs a battery hack and needs me to restart the video every 30 minutes. Price is very good though.

JVC

I have never used a JVC camera, nor have I seen anywhere that rents them out. I don’t even know where would have them out on display for me to use before I drop the cash. Videocraft/Lemac, etc. have Panasonic and Sony cameras to try, but not JVC. That makes me a bit suspicious, but on paper their cameras look interesting.

GY-HM200U/GY-HM170U – these are the same camera, just one has XLR input the other doesn’t. I don’t need XLR input, so the GY-HM170U is the cheaper one that’ll suit. It does 4K and 1080p50, but only has a 1/2.3″ sensor. It’s $2700, so it’s affordable too. Problem is that it’s so new, there’s bugger all info about it and there’s nowhere I can demo one either. It might be a good camera, I don’t know. Not sure if I want to take the risk however.

GY-LS300CHU – uses a Super35 sensor (good) but MFT lenses (average). It’s 4K (nice) but I can’t find anywhere online that sells it in AU. To import it from B&H will cost close to $6,000 landed. Then you need a lens. Too expensive for me.

GY-HM600U – an older model that looks good, but is expensive. $4500 landed in AU. Supposed to have great low light performance considering its 1/3″ sensor. If somewhere hired it out for $150/day, I’d be all over it.

What will I actually buy?

I can narrow the camera choices down to a few:

  • Blackmagic Cinema Camera EF – $1850 2nd hand + $296 500GB SSD + $500 70-200 f/4 lens – approx $2700 all up
  • Panasonic HC-X1000GC – $3300, don’t need to buy anything extra.
  • Canon 5D MkII – $900 2nd hand + $350 for 3x 32GB CF cards + $500 70-200 f/4 lens + $50 ACK-E6 AC mains adaptor – approx $1800 all up
  • Canon 70D – $750 used + $500 70-200 f/4 lens + $50 ACK-E6 mains adaptor – approx $1300
  • Nikon D3300 – $412 new + $600 70-200 f/2.8 lens + $50 for EP-5A & EH-5b AC adaptor – approx $1100

I think I’m going to buy the 70D. The demos I’ve seen of the AF in live view mode tip it over the edge vs the others. The Blackmagic is so cool though 🙁

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